76ers still have major questions looming beyond Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with NBA season in limbo

All 30 NBA teams have obviously been enormously impacted by the indefinite suspension of the 2019-20 season due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Given the long layoff, the Philadelphia 76ers might be one of a many teams to get some players back from injury should the season ultimately resume again. Joel Embiid was nursing a sprained shoulder and Ben Simmons was dealing with a nerve impingement in his lower back before the season stopped. 

Embiid had just returned to action following a multi-week absence, while Simmons was ruled out indefinitely, which raised questions as to how healthy he’d be for a mid-April playoff push. With the schedule now pushed back indefinitely, Embiid and Simmons both have extra time to get healthy, which is a plus for Philadelphia because it will only be able to go as far as its two stars take them. Exactly how far that is though remains to be seen. 

Before the NBA hit the pause button, the Sixers might have been the league’s most inconsistent team. They boasted the best home record at 29-2, but were at the bottom of the barrel on the road with a 10-24 record away from Philly. They had secured impressive wins over the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks, but also suffered embarrassing losses to the likes of the Hawks and Wizards. At 39-26, they were sitting in the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings behind the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat and Pacers, after many expected them to compete for the top seed in the conference prior to the season’s start. 

It’s only natural, as a result, to speculate over the Embiid-Simmons tandem and whether the two could coexist in Philly. The fact that the two prefer to produce in the paint is one of the key reasons why some don’t think they mesh well, as is the difference in their preferred pace of play. Simmons plays like he was shot out of a cannon and thrives in transition, while Embiid is more likely to do his damage in the halfcourt. 

These questions about the pairing come despite the fact that the Sixers have won 50-plus games and advanced in the playoffs in both seasons that they’ve played together thus far. Given the success that they’ve had together already, it’s easy to forget about how young they are. Embiid is 25 and in his fourth season, while Simmons is 23 and in his third season in the league. It took Michael Jordan seven years to win his first ring. LeBron James didn’t win his first title until his ninth season. Both players have dismissed the notion that they can’t coexist, as recently as the All-Star break, with Embiid calling such speculation “BS,” while Simmons emphasizing the fact that he liked having Embiid as a running mate. Simmons also made it clear that he doesn’t think the duo has reached its full potential yet. 

“I think it’s BS, because when you look at the last two years that we have been playing together, it was not a problem,” Embiid said. “… I mean, just look at the last two years what we have been able to do and I think it can work and it’s going to work.” 

“It takes time. Not everything is supposed to be perfect right away,” Simmons added. “We’re two different people trying to figure it out. I love playing with Joel, I think he’s an amazing talent. I got a lot of respect for his game, and I know that he feels the same way about me, so as long as we continue to strive and go the right way, I think we’ll be fine. We got a lot of talent, it’s kind of scary how good we can be.” 

Between the two of them, Embiid and Simmons already have 41 games of playoff experience and five All-Star appearances. Both have yet to reach the ceiling on their potential as players. They’re also two of the best defenders in the league, so as long as they’re both in the lineup, the Sixers are almost guaranteed of having an elite, or near-elite defense. Plus, the two seem to genuinely enjoy playing with each other. 

So while the fit between Embiid and Simmons is the hot topic, a more pertinent question for the Sixers is if the front office constructed a supporting cast to help the two thrive. They went all in on Tobias Harris and Al Horford in the offseason, and the results have been underwhelming. Harris is a fine complimentary piece, but not necessarily the type of player that can consistently carry the team, while Horford has struggled to find a fit at all. 

The main issue is that Horford’s skill set on the offensive end is a bit redundant with Embiid and Simmons. Horford is at his best when he’s operating either from the elbow or the low block. He is extremely comfortable with creating good looks for himself and others from these areas. The problem is Embiid and Simmons are also comfortable in the same areas, especially on the low block, where Embiid does a fair share of his damage, and where Simmons is often relegated as a result of his inability to space the floor with his shot. Thus, Horford has been forced to spend a lot of time on the perimeter, where he’s limited and not especially effective. Horford himself has acknowledged his integration issues. 

“It’s not as good as I want to be,” Horford said of his fit in December. “I still haven’t been able to find my rhythm with the team… I’m out [there] for the team and doing what I can to help us. But offensively, I’m very limited with the things that I can do. So I can’t control that stuff… So all I have to do is make sure I’m there for the team, trying to do everything I can to help us win.” 

Sixers coach Brett Brown had moved Horford to the bench in order to try to maximize the talent on the team, but the injuries to Embiid and Simmons forced Brown to reinsert Horford into the first five before the season was suspended. As such, there’s clearly questions about his long-term fit. The postseason could provide some clarity there, as the Sixers were touted as a team built for postseason play by both Brown and general manager Elton Brand. 

But if there is no postseason, or if Sixers flame out early rounds if and when the season resumes, then the front office will have some decisions to make over the offseason. Embiid and Simmons are the cornerstones, but the current roster doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily built to maximize their talents, not in the way that, say, the Bucks have built their roster around reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo by surrounding him with players that space the floor when the defense collapses around him. The problem for Philly moving forward though is the lack of salary cap space. With Embiid, Simmons, Harris and Horford all locked up for the foreseeable future on big-money deals (they’re all under contract through at least 2023), the team will be limited in what it can do in free agency.  

The Sixers reportedly may look to move Horford for some shooting over the offseason, but finding a trade partner will be easier said than done, especially if they are looking to secure some shooting in return. Floor-spacing is at a premium in the NBA these days. Not to mention Horford turns 34 in the summer, and there isn’t much of a market for traditional big men on the wrong side of 30, especially someone with three years and over $80 million remaining on his current contract. If the Sixers had signed Horford to a two-year deal, moving on after the first season would have been much easier. Instead, they signed him to a four-year deal, and now there’s almost no chance that they’ll get good value in return in a deal even if they are able to find an interested suitor. The Sixers might potentially even have to throw in another asset as a sweetener to get another franchise to take on the remainder of Horford’s deal. The Sixers would likely be in a similar position with Harris, who signed a five-year, $180 deal last summer. Will the they look to shake things up again this offseason?

There’s also the questions about Brett Brown and if he’s the correct coach to lead the Sixers to their first title since 1983. How the Sixers performed in this postseason was likely going to determine his status moving forward, and that still may be the case if the season ultimately resumes, but what if there’s no postseason? Has Brown done enough in the eyes of the front office to earn another season, or have they seen enough? At the least, you would have to think that the Sixers front office would look to install a new system via a new coach before they ever even considered moving on from one of Embiid or Simmons, as Brown is the only coach that either has ever had since entering the league. 

So while the entire NBA is dealing with uncertainty regarding the immediate future, the Sixers have their own questions that they need to answer, and how they decide to answer those questions will work to shape the team moving forward. 

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